The BLM fights for the Southwest’s last free-flowing river

  • Volunteers with the Sierra Club Grand Canyon chapter's Water Sentinels program sample the San Pedro River in Arizona. The San Pedro is called the most studied river in the world.

    Courtesy Tiffany Sprague/Sierra Club
  • A bend along the San Pedro River.

    Michael Crane
  • The city of Sierra Vista as seen from the Huachuca mountains.

    Daniel Guzman
  • A summer storm passes over homes in Sierra Vista.

    Tom Peck


“For sale:  Prime Office/Retail," proclaims the sign on a mesquite flat on the outskirts of this affluent city of 47,000 people, about an hour south of Tucson near the Huachuca Mountains.

It's announcing a 2,000-acre project known as Tribute, proposed by California developer Castle and Cooke and approved by city leaders six years ago. Plans call for nearly 7,000 homes and apartments, plus offices, shopping, parks and schools. The real estate bust has temporarily derailed it, but eventually up to 250 homes a year could be built.

Six miles east lies the San Pedro River, the Southwest's last free-flowing major desert river. It boasts the region's healthiest remaining riparian habitat and is home to about 80 different mammals, including coatimundi and badgers, and 350 to 400 bird species.  Four million people a year visit the San Pedro, which is so closely observed by hydrologists and riparian ecologists that it's called the most studied river in the world.

For the last two decades, housing developments have been rising at a steady clip around Sierra Vista and the San Pedro watershed; the city's population has increased more than 15 percent in the last decade. In Cochise County, which includes this area, and certain other arid counties, state law requires proposed developments to prove that they have 100 years' worth of water. But since the 1970s, the state water agency has repeatedly concluded that there's plenty of water for developments here -- a least 17,000 acre feet to serve 27,000 new homes, even though rainfall alone would not provide enough water for that many homes. Last July, the state determined that Tribute, which will use 2,400 acre-feet of that groundwater a year, also meets the 100-year requirement.

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages the 40-mile-long San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area northeast of the city, has long sat silent as the state made its approvals, effectively endorsing the concept that pumping groundwater affects neither surface water nor the river, despite evidence to the contrary. Starting last spring, however, the agency abruptly switched course, arguing that its rights to the river's water, approved by Congress when the conservation area was created in 1988, supersede those of any local entity. The BLM is now challenging the state's decision on Tribute.

The BLM's action delighted environmentalists, who had grown weary of waiting for it to protect the San Pedro's instream flow. But it also angered some locals, who complained that the federal agency is "stealing" the state's water. The dispute, which pits the future of Sierra Vista against one of the Southwest's most beloved and fought-over rivers, could become the first real opportunity for Arizona to acknowledge that water availability should limit growth. It could also set a precedent for the touchy question of federal versus state control over water rights.

Other southern Arizona rivers -- the Santa Cruz, the Gila, the Salt -- have been dried up by more than a century of diversions and pumping by farms and cities. Pumping creates a "cone of depression" that depletes the water table, and many hydrologists and environmentalists believe that excessive groundwater withdrawals could eventually empty much of the San Pedro, including in the national conservation area.

Many studies since the 1980s predict that the water table could drop so far that it would no longer support a year-round flow, killing cottonwood and willow trees and harming riparian habitat. A 2011 study found that groundwater pumping already has reduced the river's flow somewhat.

But despite the clear connection between groundwater pumping and river depletion, Arizona law treats surface water and groundwater as separate entities. Since 1990, more than 3,600 unmetered groundwater wells have been drilled in the Sierra Vista area. When it approved Tribute, the Arizona Department of Water Resources said that it lacked the power to limit water pumping to protect the river.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that Indian tribes, farmers, developers and various local, state and federal government entities have long held conflicting water-rights claims to the San Pedro. Those claims, along with others in the larger Gila River watershed, are being hashed out in the Gila River Adjudication, which has dragged on for nearly 40 years in state courts with no end in sight.

The state water agency made an effort to acknowledge the hydrology during the early 1980s, under then-Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat who pushed for groundbreaking water law reforms. Back then, the state agency ruled that no new development in the Sierra Vista area had a legally adequate water supply.

But in 1993, under Republican Gov. Fife Symington, a former developer, the state reversed its opinion, informing a Sierra Vista developer that adequate groundwater supplies were available. Pumping at the existing rate for 100 years, it said, wouldn't "directly or appreciably" hurt the river.

At the time, the BLM and the Interior Department Solicitor's office threatened possible lawsuits to protect the federally reserved water right. Instead of fighting, though, in 1998, the BLM -- now under Interior Secretary Babbitt -- allied with state, local and federal agencies, activists and developers to form the Upper San Pedro Partnership, which sought to eliminate the groundwater-pumping deficit by September 2011 without having to limit growth.

Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Feb 19, 2013 03:41 PM
Here's one Arizona vote for 'yes', to the question of the BLM's challenge to developers. Arizona's wild western heritage is rife with gunslingers and brothels, and developers have long used potential tax revenues to inspire a flip to the backside, legs spread. But enough about the legislature.

Arizona's peculiar politics touts state sovereignty one day, then flips over the next day, if the Feds have the right coin. So I wish the BLM well, but they'll have to play Arizona's game, and they'll need deeper pockets than the developers.
Tricia Gerrodette
Tricia Gerrodette
Feb 20, 2013 03:31 PM
I'm afraid I think State Sen. Griffin has it backwards. The city and developers have been blatantly stealing the river's water, which is to say OUR (citizens of U.S.) water.
Vincent Stewart
Vincent Stewart
Feb 22, 2013 03:42 PM
What does the potential appointment of Rep. Grijalva as Secretary of Interior have on this battle? It's right in his neighborhood and seems a very relevant issue.
Tony Davis
Tony Davis Subscriber
Feb 23, 2013 10:33 AM
If Grijalva were to become Interior Secretary, he would undoubtedly continue BLM's current stance toward the San Pedro and possibly even get tougher in some ways, because he is a passionate supporter of many environmental issues and causes. For many years as a Pima County, AZ supervisor before he went to Congress, he fought for land conservation and opposed major rezonings of land in the Sonoran Desert for subdivisions.
Gary Beverly
Gary Beverly Subscriber
Feb 26, 2013 10:10 AM
Fact Checker Alert!

Thanks for spreading the news of growing threats to the San Pedro. However, the second paragraph needs correction.

The Verde River is the longest surviving living river in Arizona. It supports a healthy riparian habitat for over 150 miles from the headwaters near Paulden to Horseshoe Dam, and over 100 miles of that riparian is essentially pristine, supporting 446 vertebrate species, and is one of the best native fisheries in Arizona. Although the Verde is perennial for the full length and the riparian habitat is healthy for now, it’s future is deeply threatened by the same force that has dewatered and destroyed the lower Salt, Santa Cruz, and Gila Rivers and now threatens the San Pedro: groundwater mining.

The San Pedro is much closer to destruction than the Verde because it is much smaller, much more delicate, and the groundwater mining threats are nearer to the river. The Nature Conservancy found in June 2012 that only 29% of the San Pedro was wet.

The article portrays Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) as an evil tool of developers, but the real story is that Arizona water law constrains ADWR’s decisions. Arizona water law was designed to manage the depletion of an irreplaceable resource in the service of development – definitely not to protect water dependent natural resources. To illustrate: no consideration for environmental water, separate management of ground and surface water, lack of management for 87% of Arizona’s groundwater, no consideration of neighboring effects, lack of mechanisms for water rights transfers, defines 100-year water supply as pumping to no deeper than 1000 feet below surface, and the list goes on and on… Of course the wacky Arizona Legislature shares the blame by inadequate funding for ADWR and the Gila Adjudication, and by consistently weakening the already flaccid water laws on the books. The closer you look at Arizona water law, the worse it gets.

I’m not trying to start a silly debate that “my river is better than yours” by any means. Both the San Pedro and the Verde are amazing ecological resources for the entire Southwest, both rivers need protection, and both are deeply threatened by Arizona water law. That is the point that needs to be made in every discussion and article. Unless we improve water law, we will lose the both the San Pedro and the Verde.
Tony Davis
Tony Davis Subscriber
Feb 26, 2013 12:41 PM

I don't agree a correction is warranted. I wrote that the San Pedro is the last major free-flowing river in the Southwest. The Verde is not free-flowing, since it has not one but two dams. So yes, it is larger but it's not free-flowing. End of story.
Rusty Austin
Rusty Austin Subscriber
Feb 26, 2013 03:43 PM
Once again, the GOP want to ignore nature and spoil the environment, and the Democrats at least pay lip service to not do it. Until we can all agree and admit that the GOP is the party of anti-earth, and either vote them out or force them to change, we'll never get anywhere.